Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521
In Chesapeake, another sprawling novel, this one covering four hundred years and four major families, Michener abandoned his usual narrative practice of providing several points of view and used the third-person omniscient point of view. He also shaped his novel by dividing it into fourteen “episodes” with their own chapters. The first seven voyages concern the settlement of the Eastern Shore, first by Pentaquod, a peaceful member of the warlike Susquehannock tribe who settles among the Nanticokes, and then by the three white families that dominate the remainder of the novel. The Steeds are Catholics who settle on Devon Island and eventually become landed gentry. The Turlocks are distinctly lower-class people who spring from indentured stock and adapt to the land. The Paxmores are peace-loving (“pax”) Quakers who have fled New England religious persecution. The fourth Family, the Cates, are the children of slaves. Michener uses the families and the landscape to demonstrate familiar themes. Devon Island, seat of the Steed family’s colonial power, erodes, despite humankind’s efforts to slow or stem the erosion, and finally disappears at the end of the novel after Pusey Paxmore’s funeral and the hurricane that follows it. Pusey—descended from the moral center of the novel, the Paxmores—has just finished serving time for involvement in the Watergate scandal. The Steed family also declines, much like the Southern families in the plays of Tennessee Williams. The Paxmores live, appropriately, at Peace Cliff. The Nanticokes, whom the Turlocks have assisted, eventually vanish when Tciblento dies, showing how the white man’s intolerance, exploitation, and racism have destroyed indigenous tribes.
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There are so many characters that few are drawn in any detail. One exception is Rosalind Janney, who marries Fitzhugh Steed and finds that she must administer both the house and the plantation. She also is the driving force behind seeing that the infamous pirate Bonfleur (“good flower”), ironically named, is brought to justice and hanged. When “wayward” women are whipped, as is the custom, she bares her own back and effectively puts an end to the practice. She is perhaps the feminist in the novel.
As is his practice, Michener also includes historical characters (Thomas Jefferson, John Smith, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and George Washington make cameo appearances) and historical events. Teach Turlock, Simon Steed, and Levin Paxmore unite to take on the British, primarily at sea; and Michener tells his readers more than they want to know about boat building. Similarly, in the Civil War material, the intricate details of the Underground Railroad, particularly as it relates to the Paxmores, are given.
Michener also devotes chapters to nonhuman characters: geese and crabs, both identified with the Eastern Shore. The goose Onk-or, his mate, and their flock are threatened by the huge guns capable of killing several birds with one shot. Conservation is not an Eastern Shore practice, whether it concerns birds or crabs. Michener also personifies the crab as “Jimmy,” the name given by Shoremen to male crabs. While providing a wealth of detail about geese and crabs, Michener also demonstrates the interconnectedness between the human world and the world of nature.